‘The concept of structure […] is not only a contribution to ethnography but it also possibilitates the transition between that and the other adjacent sciences: linguistics, psychology, economics, aesthetic… understood as relational systems’ (Gómez García, 1978) 

Structuralism is a way of thinking, transversal to human and social sciences that has influenced several study fields, including advertising. Especially if we talk about its methodological application to strategic planning. 

Structuralism’s origin is often located on linguistics and in particular, on the figure of Ferdinand de Saussure 

‘[…] the notion of structure where structuralism is based on sets off  fundamentally from the linguistics notion elaborated by F. de Sausuure; in it, the structure – based on the study of language as a signs system- , is understood as a whole that only can be understood through the analysis of its elements as well as the function that they accomplish within the whole: such structures thus have the character of a whole where if any modification of their relationships were made the entire system would be affected, as the structure itself is defined by its relationships, its self-regulation and its possible transformations’

Angulo Vázquez,  (2011)

Under our impresion, in advertising we weakly referenciate Lévi-Strauss’s figure and its structuralism. He pioneered in applying this method to the vast field of culture, extending it beyond linguistics. He’s to whom we all owe –and this is subjective– the great deal of being (almost without noticing) Lévi-Straussian planners when doing benchmarking analysis, brand identity schemes or positioning maps. Such strategic tasks obviously keep relationships with language and semiotics but they can be much more helpful if we take them from a cultural point of view.

It’s in his conversations with Jakobson (Rusian linguist influenced by Saussure) when Lévi-Strauss discovers the idea of structure. We should point out that besides linguistics his influences also came from Freudian psychoanalysis, geology and marxism. What these three had in common and was indeed of the interest of Lévi-Strauss was that all of them looked deeply into social structures, into the social meanings under the surface. Marxism was about ideological structures and how it gave room to the economic basis. Psychoanalysis was about conscious and unconscious and the relationship amongst the I, Ego and Superego structures. Geology allowed to know the past of the earth by studying the surface of rocks and lands.

‘Marx and Freud readings, nonetheless, leave a deep mark on him. Altogether with geology, he acknowledges them in Tristes Tropiques to be his ‘three masters’, basically because of a shared element: their postulate about that behind appearances it exists a hidden-from-reality logic or structure in whose level the sense is found’

Cañedo Rodríguez, (2010)

It should be noticed how Freudian psychoanalysis studies are far known in the academic and professional field of advertising and how they make an impact on the development of the structural anthropology driven by Lévi-Strauss. The connection with strategic planning is clear: we all need to do some research to access that hidden and revealing reality called ‘insight’. In our case we have banalised the concept though. We still do little research and misunderstand mere observation with getting true insights.

That said, Structuralism gets its hands on the deep and revealing culture meanings – real insights – through dialectic (the fight between two opposed elements). Everything is binary. Everything makes sense and is defined by a contradiction. The man wouldn’t be the man if the woman didn’t exist. The sun is the sun because of the moon. The night is because of the day. And vice versa. We all are in relation to our contrary. This condition is innate to our existence and it’s the cornerstone of structures.

“Levi-Strauss argues that there is an innate structure to human thought processes. This structure involves several basic sets of binary oppositions. Symbols, folktales, kinship, food mores, etc. from all around the world incorporate and express these binary oppositions (Elms 1977: 259)”

Recovered from Herriman, N. (2017)

By applying this model to the study of myths and kinship relationships, Lévi-Strauss showed how these structures are self-created: there are rules that govern our family relationships, our myths, our stories and tales as well as our language.

Will there also be rules (structures) managing the way we build advertising messages? Or the codes that belong to a market category product  – perfumes, automotive, fashion – are something arbitrary?

Lévi-Straus wondered the same question, but referred to the mythology universe. On the contrary to what was believed, a myth is not something arbitrary but it is a response to a structural logic. In its essay “The Structural Study of Myth” he resolves the question, brilliantly exposing the result of applying the structuralist methodology to the analysis of Oedipus myth.

To break down its structural meaning, the ethnographer set off from a linguistics premise, arguing that the myth is at the same time language and something different from it. Likewise linguistics set apart langue from the act of speaking (parole), the myth should be differentiated from language. Although they both take part of the same they are also different.

Myth is language: to be known, myth has to be told; it is a part of human speech. In order to preserve its specificity we should thus put ourselves in a position to show that it is both the same thing as language, and also something different from it. Here, too, the past experience of linguists may help us. For language itself can be analyzed into things which are at the same time similar and different.

Lévi Strauss (1955)

For Lévi-Strauss the singularity of myth is that, when transformed (through oral transmission or translations to other languages), it barely loses meaning. For instance, myth is completely opposed to poetry whose aesthetic nature puts it at risk of losing its sense and meaning when transformed, while the meaning of myth can remain unaltered.

A remark can be introduced at this point which will help to show the singularity of myth among other linguistic phenomena. Myth is the part of language where the formula traduttore, tradittore reaches its lowest truth-value. From that point of view it should be put in the whole gamut of linguistic expressions at the end opposite to that of poetry, in spite of all the claims which have been made to prove the contrary. Poetry is a kind of speech which cannot be translated except at the cost of serious distortions; whereas the mythical value of the myth remains preserved, even through the worst translation. Whatever our ignorance of the language and the culture of the people where it originated, a myth is still felt as a myth by any reader throughout the world. Its substance does not lie in its style, its original music, or its syntax, but in the story which it tells. 

Lévi Strauss (1955)

And here lies its value. If its deep meaning remains unaltered, the myth is universal. It can talk and therefore it talks about the past of a culture, about its present and it also can talk about its future: ‘it is everlasting’. We must think that this timeless and universal value does not lay on its elements but on the relationship of these. Then, a myth will always want to tell us something more than what it is apparently saying because it makes sense in its interrelationship.

But what gives the myth an operative value is that the specific pattern described is everlasting; it explains the present and the past as well as the future […] the true constituent units of a myth are not the isolated relations but bundles of such relations and it is only as bundles that these relations can be put to use and combined so as to produce a meaning.

Lévi Strauss (1955)

We expose below how Lévi Strauss analyse the Oedipus myth :

Lévi Strauss (1955)

Note: It is not strictly necessary to know the Oedipus myth to understand what we mean here. In any case you can read it on wikipedia.

Simplifying it, Lévi-Strauss structures the myth in four columns. From left to right we first see a series of actions related to, let’s say, an excess of family love (overrating of blood relations). Next column is just the opposite, a series of events originated by the lack of it (underrating of blood relations). The third column are human beings beating monsters which embodies humans overcoming their weaknesses (attempt to escape autochthony). Meanwhile in the last column we see deformed human beings looking like monsters, what tell us about human limitations and weaknesses (impossibility to succeed in it). We would have something like this:

Scheme created by the author 

We have to consider that in the Lévi-Straussian anthropology the myth ‘make an effort to correct structural oppositions or dissymmetries by offering logical intermediations: the myth’s objective is to provide a logical model to resolve contradictions’ (Gómez García ,1976)

According to Lévi-Strauss, the anthropological value of this analysis is that the Oedipus myth has to do with the incapacity of the greek culture – which believes in the individual autonomy of the human being – to find a satisfactory explanation between such belief and the empirical certainty that the human being actually needs the joining together of a man with a woman.

Turning back to the Oedipus myth, we may now see what it means. The myth has to do with the inability, for a culture which holds the belief that mankind is autochthonous (see, for instance, Pausanias, VIII, xxix, 4: vegetals provide a model for humans), to find a satisfactory transition between this theory and the knowledge that human beings are actually born from the union of man and woman. Although the problem obviously cannot be solved, the Oedipus myth provides a kind of logical tool which, to phrase it coarsely, replaces the original problem: born from one or born from two? born from different or born from the same? By a correlation of this type, the overrating of blood relations is to the underrating of blood relations as the attempt to escape autochthony is to the impossibility to succeed in it. Although experience contradicts theory, social life verifies the cosmology by its similarity of structure. Hence cosmology is true”. 

Lévi Strauss (1955)

Putting aside the anthropological value, what has all this to do with strategic planning?

The answer is the interpretative model that Lévi-Strauss has given to us, which comes from anthropology and whose analysis ability should be leveraged by us, and although we do, we often ignore who or what we should thanks to, increasing the risk of glorifying false gurus and last-minute trends.

By looking with structuralist eyes we can analyse markets and draw positioning maps. But before us, was Lévi-Strauss who did it with myth and kinship and before him it was Saussure with the language, Marx with capitalism and Freud with psychoanalysis.

We do it simply because binary oppositions are what form and structure markets. If a brand that sells affordable designer furniture exists is because the market sells unaffordable designer furniture. Structuralism represents a really useful model to find market gaps. Empty spaces. Cultural contradictions that set brand value up. Structuralism empowers the basic strategic task in breaking down reality and identifying its elemental relationships.

This is clearly seen in the well-known example of Dove. In the marketing and cultural branding blog of CULTUREMAKING (whose author I couldn’t find out who is) the following is explained:

One of the first people to apply Lévi-Strauss’ thinking to the branding world (commercially at least) were the UK marketing semioticians Ginny Valentine and Monty Alexander, who started using the myth quadrant around the early nineties. This is basically where two binaries – that have high structural relevance to the category – are paired off against each other to generate two ‘cultural norms’ and two ‘cultural contradictions’. The two cultural contradictions provide an opportunity for brands to engineer a resolution that has the potential to transform the category. Here’s the model brought to life based on the fundamental structure of female beauty.

CULTUREMAKING (March, 28,  2007) “Myth, the cultural resolution”

Faris Yakob (strategist, https://twitter.com/faris) does the same in his blog:

Yakob, F. “The dark side of brands”

It’s clear enough that I am not going to be the first planner talking about this. But what I’m trying is simply no to be the last one.

Our labour market is fundamentally pragmatic as global acceleration and immediacy avoid us to have the required time for reflection and theory. This last one is confined to the academic scope, where students come and go painfully as it’s a knowledge field opposed to such pragmatism and whose utility is reduced to be able to pass an exam. Once it is passed, the memory function does the rest.

Perhaps when we are students we aren’t mature enough to distinguish between utility and inutility. When one gets a certain professional experience the importance of theoretical thoughts, models and methodologies dawns on him. During this process is needed to acknowledge authors and their models as primary sources, who often without knowing it, are applied in our daily strategic analysis at our offices (or homes).

On the author:

Vicente Gallego is Publicist and Head of the department of strategy of a communications agency in Barcelona. He also studies social and cultural anthropology, a discipline that he considers increasingly necessary and that gives meaning to the experience gained during his professional career.

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